“Fork the horse, Lieutenant, fork the horse!” the Colonel kept shouting. “Fork the horse.”
Of course this brought out subdued laughter from the Marine 2nd Lieutenants in the Reserve Officers Class on this summer day in 1942. We had just graduated from Officer Candidates Class in Quantico,Virginia and were going into other training. Why equitation? Though we had heard of the Horse Marines, in the China and Philippine forays many years before, this was a new war, with jeeps, trucks and tanks and a new way of fighting. But, ‘twas”ours not to question why, ours but to do and die”– and learning to ride under this Colonel was a punishing battle. Sitting on this small English saddle, with no horn to grab, the idea is to press your legs tight against the horse’s side like a clamp, or, as the Colonel shouted, like a fork.
Then he emphasized, the ball of your foot should hit the stirrups, and you bear down with your heels. It seemed very uncomfortable, but as you prodded the horse with your spurs and guided him with the reins, you began to get the idea. Of course, at this stage of your learning, the horse didn’t agree with you. All he, or she, wanted to do was go back to the stable, get rubbed down, and have some oats.
But further lessons on trotting , galloping, and jumping eventually gave us the confidence to show the horse that we were boss. That forking the horse came in handy when we were ordered to try to wrestle another rider off his horse, and finally getting that feeling that the horse and we were one. For most of us this was our first time on a horse, not terrifying, but unsettling. But we were Marines – we could do anything.
The Colonel, actually a Lieutenant Colonel, was a handsome sight as he rode among us, sharply correcting our style and posture. He was large and fairly stout, but quite erect. and in his breeches, boots and pith helmet was a model to emulate. While we had already purchased our optional dress blues and whites, out of our own pocket, the riding outfit was included in our uniform allowance.
We had these lessons for about three hours once a week. We lived on the Post in Officer’s Quarters which were one floor duplexes, two of us to an apartment. While I have forgotten most of the detail of our life there, one memory of those hot humid days solidly remains – removing the boots. I suppose we had a boot jack, but our practice was to remove each other’s boots, tugging, twisting, and finally enjoying the relief as we sat there pulling off our hot sweaty socks, a bit put off by the odor of the other’s sweat.
When this ten week course ended, the officers went on to various other assignments, most to infantry assignments fighting in the Pacific. Some fifty of us went on to BaseDefenseSchool, and Bob Laing, Larry Julianne and I continued on as instructors in that school. Our weekends were now free, and we frequently got horses from the stable and rode in the woods to the west of the Post. There we found idyllic trails, small brooks, and logs to jump over. One Sunday afternoon, I got a lesson on how not to ride. I had stopped for some reason, and the rest of our party has gone on ahead. As I ran the horse to join them, a tall, bare trunked tree divided the trail ahead. Perhaps the horse had been along here many times. Perhaps he had always passed on the right. Perhaps the rider always guided him to the right. At the last stride before the tree I reined him to the left, but it was too late. He had already headed to the right. I caught most of the blow with my arms in front of my face. It took a few minutes for me to recover from the shock as I sat, dazed, on the ground. The horse kept going until he joined my friends. Where’s George? I rose and slowly joined them, remounted, and bidding goodbye, returned to the stables, wondering how I could have been so indecisive.
One other time I went riding while in the Corps. We were now stationed at Camp Le Jeune inNew River, North Carolina. It was New Years Eve, 1943. With two friends we had driven from the Post to a small resort town near Southern Pines and Fort Bragg. We had trouble finding lodgings, but finally settled into a small hotel, and joined a raucous party with some soldiers, as we welcomed the New Year. The next morning I arose early, quietly left the hotel and walked to a stable. There, on a rented horse, I rode silently through the woods, on a snow covered trail, with the flakes slowly building up on my shoulders and hat. It was memorable way to say goodbye to the East, for in another week I would be heading west and overseas.
In the years since, it has finally come to me; why equitation? The Quantico Post had a polo team, and Polo meets with other teams around the United Stateswere quite common in peace time. But the Corps didn’t want to surrender its ponies, and this feeling must have existed clear up to the Commandant of the Corps, or maybe down from the Commandant, for it was part of our officers’ education, though we would never use it in war.
George W. Parker
May 16, 2012